One of the central teachings of Buddhism is emptiness or zero. Essentially there is nothing real or enduring. Another central teaching is impermanence. Everything that arises is momentary, disappearing in the act of arising. Taken together, Buddhism teaches that there are no “things” in our world that are real; everything we experience is a momentary phenomenon. The belief that people or things exist is a fundamental misunderstanding leading to our confusion and suffering.
While it is fairly easy to recognize that things, events and situations are impermanent, we have a much harder time recognizing that our self is also empty and impermanent. We believe we are the agent acting at the center of our lives, whether we label this agent our self, soul or atman. Buddhism declares this belief is a powerful fiction that distorts our lives. The only way to truly step free from our confusion and suffering is to realize the truth of selflessness.
Even though we talk in terms of people, things, and events, all of these are ephemeral activities. The fundamental activity that gives rise to all these activities is dharma activity.
The distinctive teaching of Tathagata Zen is that dharma activity is the interaction of two essential activities, Tathagata and Tathaagata. These primal complementary activities are sometimes also called expansion and contraction, plus and minus, or male and female to highlight their reciprocal natures.
Tathagata and Tathaagata interact in the one dharma world, the Dharmakaya. The Dharmakaya is complete, perfect unity – complete emptiness. There is nothing outside of or apart from the Dharmakaya, but even the Dharmakaya is not fixed or enduring. The Dharmakaya spontaneously divides itself into Tathagata and Tathaagata, which immediately unify and a new Dharmakaya arises. This endless cycle of dividing and unifying is the fundamental dharma activity, which gives rise to everything in our world, including our self.
The separation of Tathagata and Tathaagata is the basis for human experience. Tathagata Zen breaks down human experience into three distinct components: subject, object and distance. Subject is the past, or expanding activity. It is the culmination of our life experience, habits and values. We experience subject as our thoughts, emotions, impulses, and memories. Its native activity is to expand outward and embrace the surrounding world.
Object is contracting activity; it is the activity of the world, which we experience as sensations embracing us to the center of our experience. In contrast to subjective, past activity, it is that which we have not yet experienced; it is future activity. The sounds we hear, the sights we see, the smells we notice, all come together with the subject in each moment of experience.
Distance is the self-conscious component of experience; it is that which can say, “I am.” It is our awareness of this moment’s experience: seeing the clouds, hearing the passing traffic, smelling dinner cooking in the kitchen, as well as planning our weekend or feeling happy or sad.
Each moment of experience begins with the spontaneous separation of subject and object. The content of each moment is subject and object embracing each other. Each moment culminates with the unification of subject and object and the realization of a new Dharmakaya — and all of this spontaneously happens many, many times in an instant.
This is a quick review of material that bears more careful examination and thorough study through our practice with a skilled teacher. But this overview brings into focus the distinctive problems in realizing selflessness. Our problem is attachment, which is fostered by our ignorance of the true situation. We can free ourselves from attaching to subject and object, there are many practices designed to do this; but our problems will continue to arise as long as we believe in self. We must end all attaching – dissolve the distance – to realize peace and clarity.
Most descriptions of experience conflate self-consciousness with subject, and see experience in terms of subject and object. Tathagata Zen clearly distinguishes self-consciousness from subject, which helps free us from identifying with the subject in experience. However, we stubbornly believe that distance – self-conscious awareness – is our self.
There are several reasons why dissolving distance is so hard. Breaking free from attachments and identification is not a simple, one-time thing. We can expect to trip over our attaching mind for years, if not decades. The inevitable stress points in our lives will reveal, over and over again, how we are caught on our selves. If we are lucky, we will not have to repeat the same lesson too many times.
Furthermore, simply telling ourselves to dissolve the distance won’t do it. Thinking “dissolve the distance” is mere thinking. Joshu Roshi once said, “Thoughts that are not manifested are an illusion.” While there is much discussion about the mental discipline needed to practice, there is an important physical component to practice as well. Distance dissolves when we completely engage in manifesting the moment, when we embody our experience as our self.
Distance is intimately bound together with its content, subject and object activity. We must consider each of the components of experience if we are to dissolve distance.
The object’s natural movement is from the limits of perception to the center of experience. We manifest objective activity through perceived sensations of the surrounding world. There are sights and sounds continually coming to us; but there is a difference between looking and seeing or between listening and hearing. When we look at someone or something, we process the visual sensations through the filter of our subjective evaluation. This is not dissolving self; instead, it affirms our sense of self and inhibits true relationship.
To really see someone, we must directly receive visual sensations and let them enter unfiltered and unhindered to our center. We must be transparent, open, vulnerable to being moved by what we see. We must disappear into seeing; this is practicing dissolving our self, dissolving distance. Similarly, when we listen to someone we filter their words through our subjective assessment. Self doesn’t disappear, rather it is affirmed. Hearing someone, on the other hand, requires that we disappear into just what they are saying, just as they are saying it. When we disappear, distance disappears; when distance disappears, we disappear.
Correspondingly, for each of our senses there is one path that filters sensation through our self and another where they come directly into us and we disappear into the immediacy of the sensing. One path affirms the self, the other path dissolves the self. In zazen there is a world of difference between following our breathing and dissolving into inhaling and exhaling.
On the subjective side, subject generates thoughts, memories, and emotions which we experience as thinking, recalling, and emotional feelings. People mistakenly believe that their self-consciousness is generating this activity; but our self is merely conscious of subject’s activity. We are much more prone to attaching to this activity.
It is important to realize that thoughts, emotions, and memories are not bad; the problem is our attaching to them. Thoughts or emotions that arise from the center of experience and immediately embrace the fullness of experience are clear. But, when we attach, we dwell with subjective activity, hampering the fullness of experience. When this happens, subjective activity begets more subjective activity and doesn’t disappear. Thinking gives rise further thinking, or triggers an emotion or memory, which triggers more activity. Each instance of subjective activity lasts no longer than a flash of lightening. But when strung together through attaching they overwhelm our contact with the world. We must be transparent to arising thought or emotion; and also transparent to the full experience of the moment. Subject and object are clear.
A big part of our difficulty is a subtle, deep-seated identification with self-consciousness. In the image of experience that Tathagata Zen offers, we tend to see distance as having equal value to, or perhaps even preeminence over subject and object. This is missing the crucial point – there is no agent at the center of experience. The content of this moment is subject and object interaction, nothing more. Our self-awareness is secondary, a byproduct of the separation of subject and object. If we attach to our self-awareness, this will inevitably lead to a distortion of our experience.
Distance is an sliver of incomplete, self-aware emptiness arising between subject and object. Distance is akin to space, which is filled with whatever enters it. If a subjective thought enters the space, we manifest thinking. If the objective sound of music enters the space, we manifest music. Our content is entirely subject and object activities; there is nothing else. There is no observer apart from experience. Distance is limited, self-aware experience; distance is limited, self-aware emptiness.
My teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, has often talked about our self being a ghost – a fleeting wisp of self awareness in the midst of two all-encompassing activities. When distance manifests its nature, zero, then subject and object are clear. When we attach to likes and dislikes, then the clear meeting of subject and object is distorted by our attaching. We dissolve distance when we manifest our true nature – zero. When we are clear, subject and object meet cleanly, clearly; and dynamically embrace each other.
When we attach, we are afraid our interests will not be acknowledged, our desires not satisfied. But they are already present in subject’s activity. We distort the natural interaction by asserting our self on the meeting of subject and object. Any distortion goes against the natural dynamic exchange and results in suffering.
When we are dancing with our partner, we must give ourselves to the music, give ourselves to the movement of our partner, and surrender to our spontaneous response to all of this. Then we taste the magic of dancing. If, on the other hand, we feel compelled to observe, comment, or otherwise inject our self, then the magic of dancing never appears.
Since each moment is impermanent, literally disappearing in its arising, there is no reality or truth in separation. What is true is that every moment ends in the unification of subject and object, the realization of a new Dharmakaya. Tathagata and Tathaagata, having inevitably separated, will just as inevitably reunite.
If we want to realize what is true, ultimate unity, then we must work to dissolve the attaching mind – dissolve the distance – and manifest the meeting of subject and object. Ultimately, we must trust the natural interaction between Tathagata and Tathaagata; we must have faith in dharma activity. As long as we harbor doubts, we will hesitate, and we will miss the dynamic meeting of subject and object; we will miss the magic of living. When distance realizes its true nature, zero, subject and object naturally embrace each other. This is true love. We realize love and fulfillment not through pursuing self-centric desires, but by giving ourselves through love to realizing the perfect unity that is our origin and destination.